Born 29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933
Background: Constantine P. Cavafy was born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (or Kabaphs) in Alexandria, Egypt, into a wealthy merchant family. Originally the family came from Constantinople, Turkey, where Cavafy lived from 1880 to 1885. After his father's death in 1872 he was taken to Liverpool, England, for five years. Apart from the years in Istanbul (1882-85), he spent the rest of his life in Alexandria. "Whatever war-damage it's suffered, / however much smaller it's become, / it's still a wonderful city," Cavafy once wrote of his cosmopolitan home town - perhaps not without ironic attitude.
Enjoying his family's respectable position in the cosmopolitan society of Alexandria, Cavafy led an uneventful life of routine, which was interrupted only by short trips to Athens, France, England, and Italy. His first book was published when he was 41, and reissued five years later with additional seven poems. He published no further works during his lifetime.
As a writer Cavafy was perfectionist - he printed his poems by himself and delivered them only to close friends. The poems had sometimes handwritten corrections. Main themes in his works were homosexual love, art, and politics. He started writing poetry under the influence of late-Victorian and Decadent European models, but then abandoned his attempts to compose in foreign tongues.
Fourteen of Cavafy's poems appeared in a pamphlet in 1904. The edition was enlarged in 1910. Several dozens appeared subsequent years in a number of privately printed booklets and broadsheets. These editions contained mostly the same poems, first arranged thematically, and then chronologically. Close to one third of his poems were never printed in any form while he lived. 'One Night,' written 1907, was one of the erotic poems Cavafy wrote during the years in Alexandria, and referred to a passing sexual encounter. It showed the poet's devotion to a sensual pleasure, free and joyous.
And there on that common, humble bed,
I had love's body, hand those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual, red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I'm drunk with passion again.
In book form Cavafy's poems were first published without dates before World War II and reprinted in 1949. PIIMATA (The Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy) appeared posthumously in 1935 in Alexandria. Cavafy died on April 29, 1933 in Alexandria. Nowadays the cafés that the poet frequented on the Rue Misalla (now Safiya Zaghlul) have been largely replaced by shops.
Cavafy composed rhymed as well as free verse, but never loose, unstructured, or irregular poems. He used iambic, eleven-syllable measures, including the popular fifteen-syllable verse of the demotic tradition. After giving up experiments with different literary models, Cavafy mixed the demotic and pure Greek called katharevousa, and used his wide knowledge of the history of East Roman and Byzantine empires as the basis of his themes.
Like in Oscar Wilde, aestheticism and skepticism marked Cavafy's work. One of his central motifs was regret for old age: Past and present, East and West, Greek and 'barbarian' were fused into sophisticated commentaries on paganism, Christianity, and decadent modern world. Cavafy sketched a rich gallery of historical, semi-obscure, or fictitious characters, whom he used as personae acting, or being discussed, in the episodes of his poems. Often his style was dramatic, as in the famous 'Waiting for the Barbarians.' Among his confessional poems with homosexual theme is 'The Bandaged Shoulder,' much admired by Lawrence Durrell.
Friends & Relationships: His first love affair was with his cousin, George Psilliary, in 1882. he would often visit male brothels or the Café Al Salam where there were plenty of available young men – in particular a handsome young car mechanic called Toto. His only long-term lover was Alexander Singopoulos whom he made his heir and literary executor. Although he was upset when Alexander got married he later became fond of his wife Rika.
Cavafy held afternoons from 5 until 7 at his flat with metses and ouzo or whisky and he would observe quietly his friends and his handsome youths.
Cavafy lived in West London for three years from 1873 – 1876. He died on his seventieth birthday after a long fight against throat cancer. His last act was to place a dot into the center of a circle he had drawn. In Hidden Things he predicted:
Later, in a more perfect society, Someone else made just like me
Is certain to appear and act freely.